(This is the text of a handout published by by the Alexandria-Washington Masonic Lodge.)
The following is a brief response to questions often asked about Freemasonry: what is Freemasonry, what is its origin, when and where did it start, who started it, and what is its purpose.
Freemasonry is the oldest and the largest fraternal order in the world. It is a universal brotherhood of men dedicated to serving God, family, fellowman and country.
The heritage of modern Freemasonry is derived from the organized guilds or unions of stone masons who constructed the beautiful cathedrals and other stately structures throughout Europe during the middle ages. The skills and architectural genius of these craftsmen and their commitment to the highest standards of moral and ethical values were universally applauded, and unlike other classes of people, they were allowed to travel freely from country to country. Thus, during this period, the word "Free" was prefixed to the word mason, and these craftsmen, and the generations of masons who followed, were referred to as Freemasons.
Until about the sixteenth century, masons were strictly an operative craft-stone masons and architects building those magnificent cathedrals and palaces, many of which still adorn the landscape of the European country side. Early in the seventeenth century, membership in these unions or operating lodges of stone masons began to decline, and probably to compensate for their loss in members, they began to admit certain men of prominence in society who were not craftsmen or stone masons. This class of members were initially considered patrons of the Fraternity, and over the years became known as "accepted masons." At the conclusion of the seventeenth century, a radical transformation had evolved; these accepted masons had become predominant, and the older lodges of Freemasons began to emphasize and teach moral philosophy rather than the technical and operative art of earlier centuries. Tools of the stone masons are still used in the Fraternity today, but only to symbolize moral virtue, not to build cathedrals.
Although the moral philosophy of Freemasonry is founded upon religious principles, it is not a religion, nor is it a substitute for religion. Candidates for membership (adult males) are however, expected to profess a belief in God, and be of good moral character.